A Business Continuity Plan (BCP) is a detailed strategy and set of systems for ensuring an organization’s ability to prevent or rapidly recover from a significant disruption to its operations. The plan is essentially a playbook for how any type of organization—such as a private-sector company, a government agency or a school—will continue its day-to-day business during a disaster scenario or otherwise abnormal conditions.
Examples of such disruptions include a fire, a major earthquake or other a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, a cyberattack and many other scenarios that could upend “business as usual.” When such events significantly disrupt an organization’s normal routines, it turns to its business continuity plan for instructions, processes and tools it needs to continue to operate or to quickly recover from downtime.
Risks can be managed, but they can’t be eliminated. Business continuity planning is critical because without it, an organization faces downtime and other problems that could damage its financial health. In major disasters, a lack of a business continuity plan could cause irreparable financial harm that might ultimately force a company to permanently close.
There are many frameworks for creating an effective business continuity plan. Most of them cover three overlapping phases:
- Analysis: In this phase, you identify and evaluate the various functions of your business and its operations. Then, you determine how those different functions will be affected by a disaster. This phase usually entails prioritizing different areas or departments in terms of how important they are to your operation, so that your plan ultimately ensures the continuity of your most critical functions first.
Business continuity professionals often conduct a Business Impact Analysis (BIA) at the outset of developing a new plan. A BIA estimates the consequences of different disaster scenarios in terms of lost revenue and other business-specific metrics.
- Planning: Once an initial analysis is complete, the next phase entails all facets of developing an actual plan for continuing to operate in a disaster, or rapidly recovering from a disruption to normal operations. During the planning phase, organizations:
- Develop protocols for potential needs such as a rapid relocation or shift to remote work.
- Strategize temporary staffing changes or needs.
- Implement IT disaster recovery tools to ensure continuity of critical systems.
A key part of this phase is to name a continuity or crisis management team, comprised of executives and stakeholders who will lead the plan’s implementation if necessary.
- Training and Testing: Even the most robust BCP must be put through regular testing to ensure it will work if needed. This includes educating employees on their roles and responsibilities in these scenarios, as well as conducting trials of various elements of the plan. An example would include a short-term rollout of a remote work scenario to identify issues and opportunities for optimization.
Some features of a BCP will be industry or business-specific, but there are components that are common to almost any plan:
People: A BCP will clearly define roles and responsibilities, not just for the crisis management leadership team, but also for any units responsible for implementing different pieces of the plan in a disaster scenario. Some BCPs will also define “essential personnel”—for example, people whose job requires them to report to work even in periods of heightened risk.
Technology: Almost all modern business continuity plans will also clearly outline the role that information technology will play in ensuring critical data, applications and services remain available or are quickly restored after an interruption. These include:
- Data backup and recovery tools
- Cloud computing infrastructure and services
- Remote work platforms
Service Delivery: A BCP should also describe which services are most critical and how they will continue to be delivered to customers, employees, partners, the public and other stakeholders.
Health & Safety: Finally, a strong business continuity program will include criteria and guidelines for ensuring the health and safety of all people involved—employees, customers, partners—as the plan is implemented and managed.
Many organizations create a checklist as part of their business continuity planning. This is a list of all of the key steps in the BCP. It can be used in two ways:
- Conception: First, it can be used as part of the initial creation of the plan. In this context, the BCP checklist would describe in detail the steps necessary to develop the plan, from analysis through testing.
- Implementation: Second, a BCP checklist can be used for testing and/or actually implementing the plan. In this context, the BCP or crisis management team would use the checklist to ensure that it addresses all of the plan’s tools and processes and communicates them effectively throughout the organization.
Business continuity planning and disaster recovery planning are often mentioned in similar contexts, but they are not interchangeable terms. A business continuity plan is an overarching strategy for operating in disaster scenarios or recovering from a major disruption.
A disaster recovery (DR) plan refers more specifically to the IT processes and tools you can rely on to retain or restore access to mission-critical data, applications, and services in these scenarios. A DR plan would detail, for example, how you could restore access to a revenue-generating web application in the event of a flood in the data center that powers that service.
Most experts recommend that business continuity plans be reviewed regularly and updated as needed. This helps ensure that the plan will still meet the organization’s needs in the face of evolving risks and threats.
The frequency with which you review a business continuity plan depends on many factors, including the nature of the organization, its industry and its particular risks. As a general rule of thumb, such plans should be reviewed annually or at least every other year. However, there are multiple scenarios where an organization may want to consider more frequent reviews, including:
- Significant changes to the business or its operations
- Location in a region at greater risk for natural disasters or other potentially disruptive events
- Any organization or agency that provides essential services to the public